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Asbestos refers to a group of six types of naturally occurring minerals. Asbestos minerals are made up of fine, durable fibers and are resistant to heat, fire and many chemicals. Once called the "miracle mineral" for such properties, asbestos was used in a slew of everyday products, from building materials to fireproof protective gear. It is now widely known that exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, a fatal cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, as well as other cancers and lung-related illnesses.
All six types of asbestos minerals have common characteristics. All forms of the mineral are odorless and tasteless. When asbestos is present in a material or product, it cannot be detected by a visual examination and must be tested in a laboratory. These properties often make it difficult to determine specific risks of asbestos exposure. However, any exposure to the group of minerals can lead to pleural mesothelioma and other diseases such as lung cancer or asbestosis.
It is important for individuals to know their risks, especially if they have a history of asbestos exposure. Individuals who have had exposure should learn how to protect themselves through medical monitoring. Request a free packet from the Pleural Mesothelioma Center to learn about your risks and how to handle them. Complete the form on this page to have a personalized packet mailed to you overnight.
In addition to these properties shared by all asbestos minerals, each of the six types has its own distinct features. The types are separated into categories based on the physical appearance of individual asbestos fibers. Asbestos minerals are divided into two categories: serpentine asbestos and amphibole asbestos.
Asbestos exposure can cause anumber of health problems. The most dangerous is pleural mesothelioma, also known as malignant pleural mesothelioma. This cancer is typically caused by one of three types of exposure to asbestos: occupational exposure, secondary exposure or environmental exposure.
When airborne asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested,they can become lodged inside the body. The body has significant difficulty expelling the fibers, which can cause health complications. It can take from 10 to 50 years, but these fibers are proved to cause asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma cancer. In total, these asbestos-related illnesses account for approximately 10,000 deaths in the United States each year.
About 2,000 to 3,000 of these annual deaths – about one every 3.4 hours – are caused by mesothelioma. Whereas lung cancer may have other contributing causes, pleural mesothelioma is almost exclusively caused by exposure to asbestos.
Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of this cancer, which develops in the lining of the lungs. It has a latency period of 20 to 50 years. This means that people exposed to asbestos before 1980s government regulations may now begin to notice pleural mesothelioma symptoms. The latency period also means that the peak in pleural mesothelioma cases won't occur until decades after the peak in asbestos usage.
For this reason, most projections estimate that the United States still has not experienced the highest annual rate of mesothelioma cases. Most models estimate that the maximum number of annual pleural mesothelioma diagnoses will occur between 2015 and 2020. This estimate holds true for other areas of the world with a similar history of asbestos usage. For example, Britain researchers expect to see a national maximum in 2016 and Dutch researchers estimate a 2017 peak.
Asbestos use is not banned in the United States, but it is strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government entities. Asbestos can only be used in products that have historically contained the mineral. In other words, no "new uses" are permitted. Additionally, these products can be made with asbestos only if there is no adequate substitute.
This has led to a steep decrease in nationwide use. In 1973, domestic consumption of asbestos was 803,000 metric tons. Consumption in 2005 was a fraction of that, totaling only 2,400 metric tons. The small amount that is still used annually goes into products that require fireproof and heat resistant qualities. Products which may still be made with asbestos include protective clothing, pipe insulation, brake linings and similar materials.
Individuals who continue to work with asbestos must be adequately protected. Employers must advise workers of the presence of asbestos and must provide proper protective gear such as air-purifying respirators. Further laws regulate proper asbestos abatement procedures, outlining how to prevent asbestos from becoming airborne and how to properly dispose of the hazardous material. These instructions note safety precautions such as keeping asbestos-containing materials wet so asbestos dust does not enter the air.
Despite both federal and state regulations on asbestos use and abatement, asbestos exposure continues to be an issue in the United States. Minimizing environmental exposure continues to be a struggle in areas with high concentrations of naturally occurring asbestos,such as El Dorado Hills, California and Libby, Montana.
Household exposureis also still an issue because so many construction products contain asbestos. This is especially true of houses built prior to the 1980s, when asbestos use was more common. Items that may contain asbestos include insulation, cement, drywall, ceiling tiles, floor tiles and other construction items. These items generally pose no risk unless they are damaged or cut. Once an asbestos-containing material is damaged, asbestos fibers can enter the air and can be inhaled or ingested. It is important to avoid remodeling or demolition projects until a professional inspector confirms the absence of asbestos. If asbestos is found, proper abatement procedures should be followed to ensure the safety of everyone in the area.
Other types of exposure, namely from workplaces and environmental pollution, have declined thanks to the strict regulations in the past few decades. It is important to know if you've been exposed to asbestos or if you may be exposed to it in the future. If you have been exposed to asbestos, get medical treatment as soon as possible. If pleural mesothelioma develops, early detection is crucial for effective treatment. For more information about asbestos, pleural mesothelioma and treatment options, request a complimentary book from the Pleural Mesothelioma Center.